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Participatory Design and Translation as Collaborative Models in United Fronteras

By Laura Gonzales, Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics and Associate Director of TRACE Innovation Initiative, University of Florida

Academics love to talk about borders. We talk about (and even romanticize) the “borders” between disciplines, cultures, and contexts, between languages, and even between political orientations. Yet, in many corners of academia, these academic conversations don’t always acknowledge the physical, militarized, and surveilled nature of physical borders as well as the embodied experiences of the people who navigate borderland experiences in their everyday material realities. This, to me, is the contribution that United Fronteras makes to both academic and community-driven discourses—a place to document physical, material, embodied borderland experiences from multiple perspectives.

As stated on our site, the mission of United Fronteras “bring together active and inactive works that leverage digital components to document the borderlands from multiple perspectives.” For me, the emphasis on a multiplicity of experiences has been central not only to the types of projects documented on United Fronteras, but also to the process of documentation amongst the team and our communities. First, as documented on our about page, our team is interdisciplinary and cross-institutional, made up of scholars who have varied connections to and investments in physical borderland spaces. In each stage of the documentation project, the team also made efforts to engage in participatory practices. For example, as we decided which projects to showcase on the United Fronteras exhibit, members of our team reached out to hundreds of different site and project organizers across Mexico and the United States to both request consent to feature different projects on the exhibit and to build a broader range of awareness and community related to United Fronteras as an initiative.

In this way, United Fronteras practices elements of both Human-Centered Design and Participatory Design. According to Rose and Cardinal (2019), the Human-Centered Design (HCD) process “Sets users or user data as the criteria by which a design is evaluated or as the generative source of design ideas” (10). Human-Centered designers work with users’ needs and perspectives in mind. In the case of United Fronteras, while HCD provides one angle from which to approach the project, our team also recognizes that as a team of researchers, we can’t fully comprehend the various needs or interests of users who will be engaging with our project. For this reason, we also engage in participatory design, a methodology that “advocates for the full and direct participation of end users within the design process (Spinuzzi, 2005; Ehn, 1993) as part of a ‘commitment to the idea of industrial democracy’ (Ehn, 1993) (Rose & Cardinal, 2018, p. 10). Thus, in addition to designing for humans (i.e., HCD), we also design with humans, specifically by inviting collaborators to join us in developing this important documentation project that really has the potential to showcase multiple perspectives related to the borderlands.

Undoubtedly, like any process, participatory design or HCD processes are fraught with mistakes and issues. As designers and digital humanists, we can never assume to really know what we mean by “multiple perspectives.” Yet, by developing a team of feminist scholars from multiple disciplines committed to decolonization and collaboration, United Fronteras seeks to broaden conversations about the borderlands beyond a single perspective or academic angle. We want to illustrate and highlight the constantly shifting and evolving nature of borderland life, in all its multiplicities and tensions.

Laura Gonzales presented about this topic in the 2019 Digital Humanities Forum at the University of Kansas. To access the full presentation (Minute 10-17:30) visit:


Rose, E., & Cardinal, A. (2018). Participatory video methods in UX: Sharing power with users to gain insights into everyday life. Communication Design Quarterly Review, 6(2), 9-20.